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How The New York Times managed to avoid ruining Wordle

Enlarge / Sometimes, building better Wordles means building the same Wordles…

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO—When The New York Times acquired daily puzzle mega-hit Wordle at the beginning of 2022, there were plenty of skeptics who were sure it signaled the end of the game’s incredible viral rise. Apparently, those skeptics included some of the people at the Times itself.

At a presentation at the Game Developers Conference Thursday, Times game producer and industry veteran Zoe Bell said the new owners expected Wordle‘s daily users “would just immediately decline” after the acquisition. Partly that was out of fear that some players would recoil from the “huge corporate behemoth” that now owned the indie hit. But it was also a simple recognition of the usual cycle for viral “zeitgeist” games: “How long can exponential growth go on?”

Just over a year after the acquisition, though, Bell said the company’s efforts at “preserving Wordle as an Internet treasure” have paid off. That’s largely thanks to a patient, “first do no harm” strategy that didn’t seek to directly monetize the game or introduce a lot of half-baked changes to the game’s successful formula, she said.

If it ain’t broke…

Bell said Wordle daily player numbers that are still “unfathomably high” are evidence of that strategy’s success. Before the Times acquisition, Bell said Wordle had gone from 90 players on November 1, 2021, to 300,000 by the end of the year. And while that exponential growth would inevitably slow, Bell said Wordle‘s daily user numbers peaked at tens of millions of players in March 2022 (that’s about a month after the peak in Wordle results shared on Twitter).

While <em>Wordle</em>'s player numbers have peaked, they've also stayed remarkably resilient over time.
Enlarge / While Wordle‘s player numbers have peaked, they’ve also stayed remarkably resilient over time.

Zoe Bell

Even after that peak, Wordle‘s daily player numbers have declined much more slowly than those for similar viral hits like Pokémon Go and Among Us, according to estimates presented by Bell. In fact, in early 2023, Wordle was still getting about half as many daily players as it did at its March peak, according to graphs shown by Bell, a level of interest that has remained at a relatively stable plateau since August.

While the Times didn’t rush to make changes to Wordle after the purchase, Bell did acknowledge a few unintended snafus with the transition.

The game’s move to The New York Times’ servers (from three different URLs where original creator Josh Wardle hosted the game) led to a tech problem that caused some players to lose their hard-earned streaks. And when the Times pared down the solution list to match its editorial standards, some players who didn’t refresh their browsers would be out of sync with their friends.

The Times also initially decided to remove some “less family friendly words” not just from the game’s solution set, but from the list of words that were valid to guess. As it turns out, “people like to guess racial slurs and dirty words as their initial guess,” Bell said.

After receiving some irate feedback questioning why the Times was trying to “police our guesses,” Bell said the team reverted that change. It’s not like players could really use their personal Wordle boards to harass other players, she pointed out. “If you want to [guess] that, go ahead.”

“…don’t break it”

After these initial headaches, the Times team refocused on coding just two major changes: a ground-up rewrite of the game’s code in React (which would allow the game to be integrated into the NYT’s mobile games app, alongside its famous crosswords) and the ability for players to sign in with a New York Times account (for reliable stat tracking across browsers and devices).

The Times took its time implementing those changes, which would eventually roll out in the summer of 2022. Even as daily users peaked in March, and even as competing apps dominated searches for Wordle in mobile app stores, Bell said Times management was “very patient” letting them take their time with these efforts, to make sure “there was a seamless experience” rolling them out.

<em>Wordle</em>'s value to The New York Times isn't much of a puzzle.
Enlarge / Wordle‘s value to The New York Times isn’t much of a puzzle.

The patience seems to have paid off; although Wordle remains free to play without a subscription, 35 percent of users who bought a new Times gaming subscription in 2022 cited the game as the reason they subscribed, Bell said. “Just like people used to buy the paper for the comics section, people now come to the Times for Wordle,” she said.

The biggest change since the summer has been the naming of Wordle editor Tracy Bennett in October. That meant there was someone to “curate the word list” and set a daily rhythm between hard and easy words, Bell said. It also gives players someone on the other side to think about when they play every day; “now when your streak breaks you can blame Tracy,” Bell joked.

But even that small curatorial change hasn’t been without its issues. When Bennett started matching the daily Wordle solutions to major events on the calendar (e.g. “FEAST” as the solution for Thanksgiving Day) some players insisted the new editor was ruining Wordle. Bell said the team has learned its lesson, and there are no plans for more daily themed solutions going forward.

And that just highlights how and why Bell said the Times team wants to be “very thoughtful” about making even small changes to Wordle going forward. It’s a caution driven by the stats: a stunning 95 percent of players say they are either somewhat or very satisfied with the game as it is.

Even incredibly small changes and problems can be “a huge deal when you’re running a huge viral hit… when tens of millions of people are playing your game, they notice everything,” Bell said. “After a while not breaking things, it’s OK to move on… [It’s OK to] buy a game you love and treat it like you built it.”

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